Can Cambodia’s island tourism regain its pre-pandemic mojo?

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PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA – As Buth Chhon loads his boat at the Koh Tuoch beach docks in Sihanoukville, he carefully examines the orders: fish, alcohol, meat and vegetables, to be transported to hotels, guesthouses and the villages of the surrounding islands like Koh Rong.

The 45-year-old father of five made the trip daily, filling one of his two supply boats with garbage on the way back to town, enjoying the trip both ways.

“But now I only do it two or three times a week,” he said, estimating his earnings had fallen to around 35% in pre-COVID times. “I can’t really say how much I lost in terms of money, but I just lost a lot.”

In the first year of the global pandemic, Sihanoukville’s tourism economy remained afloat thanks to the relatively limited spread of COVID-19 in the country. However, following the epidemics that began in February 2021, businesses here have seen a devastating drop in the number of visitors.

As Cambodia’s neighbors experiment with island sandboxes – like Phuket in Thailand and Phu Quoc in Vietnam – this once bustling port, along with the islands 45 minutes away by speedboat, are now home to guesthouses and restaurants. largely closed, and a net of domestic and expatriate tourism.

Now the question is whether this idyllic hub of Cambodia’s tourist economy, which seemed on an unstoppable upward trajectory just a few months ago, can bounce back and thrive again.

Cambodia’s tourism sector has grown every year since 1995, growing from hundreds of thousands of annual visitors in the mid-1990s to 6.6 million in 2019, each spending an average of $ 800 during their stay. In 2018 and 2019, the tourism sector accounted for nearly 20% of the country’s total gross national product.

FILE – Tourists walk along a beach on Koh Rong Island, Sihanoukville province, October 31, 2019 (Photo by TANG CHHIN Sothy / AFP)

The country’s largest tourist islands, Koh Rong and Koh Rong Sanleum, off the coast of Sihanoukville, welcomed around 266,000 tourists in 2019, 71% of whom are international tourists, fueling the country’s $ 36.6 million tourism economy. province.

But in 2020, the number of visitors to the islands was halved to around 130,000, and international tourism fell 65%, according to the director of the provincial tourism department of Preah Sihanouk, Taing Sochet Krisna. Tourism revenues have fallen sharply, to just $ 16.6 million.

Sochet Krisna estimates that around 600 businesses have closed across the province, including many coastal attractions, but he says 100 of them have reopened in the past three months and more have turned on their lights every day. . Others have closed temporarily and are now planning smooth reopening.

There weren’t enough international visitors here. Our income depends entirely on international tourists.

Sochet Krisna hopes the region will recover quickly, given the recent success of Cambodia’s vaccination campaign and a reduced quarantine – from 14 to seven days – for vaccinated travelers, depending on their country of origin. Almost 82% of the country would have received their first dose of the coronavirus vaccine and more than 77% would have been fully vaccinated.

And while visitors are still required to pay a hefty $ 1,000 deposit for their quarantine, last week’s reintroduction of e-visa-on-arrival visas in some countries has given those who depend on tourists hope that Cambodia will reopen with it. his neighbors.

“As we are well organized and many people in Sihanoukville are vaccinated, we have organized ourselves for the protection [against] the spread of COVID-19, ”said Sochet Krisna, a nod to the ubiquitous QR codes required for entry into businesses and the alcohol mist on the doors of most confined spaces. “It has become better for business enterprises, they are more open.”

Sihanoukville presented a sandbox-like plan similar to Phuket in Thailand – in which low-risk travelers are allowed to roam the country freely after spending some time in quarantine in certain areas or resorts.

But the province cannot move forward without the approval of the national government, and it has not received permission from the ministries of health or tourism, said Sochet Krisna. And with Cambodia now reducing its quarantine mandate, the sandbox plan may be unnecessary.

FILE - A tourist wearing a face mask walks into a thermoscan area at the quiet Phnom Penh International Airport in Phnom Penh, April 3, 2020.

FILE – A tourist wearing a face mask walks into a thermoscan area at the quiet Phnom Penh International Airport in Phnom Penh, April 3, 2020.

Life on the islands

On Krabey Island, the five-star luxury resort Six Senses closed abruptly in March 2020. Since then, their several planned smooth openings have failed, said a member of hotel staff who asked to remain anonymous because he was not allowed to speak. of the owner.

“The hotel was planning to reopen several times – October 2020, December 2020 and October 2021 – but we ended up delaying our plans,” they said, noting that they also had not received any government assistance. “There weren’t enough international visitors here. Our income depends entirely on international tourists.

“I want to see the government welcome international tourists again. “

Tourism operators on Cambodia’s 32 islands, which like Sihanoukville have experienced unprecedented development over the past decade, say they have been caught off guard by the pandemic. Companies that derive the majority of their money from international guests have been hit very hard, they said.

“It destroys our tourism development, tourism business owners, their employees… and the local people who make products to sell to tourists,” said Ho Vandy, secretary general of the Cambodia National Tourism Alliance.

And no area has been hit harder than Koh Rong and Koh Rong Sanleum, as well as boat cruises and ferries which have lost more than 90% of their business in the past 20 months, Ho Vandy said.

But for others, there is nothing else to do but wait. Khmer Dive store owner Robert Hughes, who claims the past six months have generated virtually no income – he had six customers from March through August.

“There are just generally fewer people going for vacation activities, so there are fewer people who will walk past us and be interested in scuba diving,” he said.

Although the company has focused on the domestic tourism market, Hughes said there is still a reluctance to travel, as people wait for things to improve with the pandemic.

“The main labor issue on the island has been what I guess you would call consumer confidence. We know a lot of people who have started their diving course but never made the last step to get to the islands, ”he said.

FILE - Tourists walk along a beach on Koh Rong Island, Sihanoukville province, October 31, 2019 (Photo by TANG CHHIN Sothy / AFP)

FILE – Tourists walk along a beach on Koh Rong Island in Sihanoukville province on October 31, 2019 (Photo by TANG CHHIN Sothy / AFP)

The government has offered help, according to Ho Vandy. Workers in the tourism sector were eligible to receive $ 39 per month to stay afloat, and tourism licenses were automatically extended for travel agents, tour guides, hotels and other related services.

But many on the islands say they have received no support despite their struggles, such as mini-market owner Mann Sokhonat. His store in Koh Rong Sanleum opened about two years before the pandemic began, making up to $ 3,000 a month. But since February 2020, he says he has lost more than $ 100,000 between his mini-market and his guesthouse.

He says he doesn’t want to close, but there is nothing he can do but wait. “It has a financial impact on my family and I because we don’t have other sources of income. I have to pay the rents of my premises for the market and the guesthouse, pay the school fees of my children and others [expenses]Mann Sokhonat said.

“I want to see the government welcome international tourists again,” he added.

Buth Chhon, the boat’s driver, also did not receive an allowance. He was encouraged by the recent influx of tourists over the past vacation (officials said 80,000 people visited the province over a long weekend). But the pandemic has made the seasoned sailor suspicious: nothing is guaranteed.

“Now it’s a little better, because it’s Pchum Ben’s vacation,” he said. “I don’t know what comes later. There could still be fewer tourists.


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